Lord Cardigan’s Cherry Pants

Ferdinand Mount

  • The Crimean War: The Truth behind the Myth by Clive Ponting
    Chatto, 379 pp, £20.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 7011 7390 4

In his tactless German way, Prince Albert pulled no punches: ‘We have no general staff or staff corps, no field commissariat, no field army department; no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans; no practice or possibility of acquiring it, in the combined use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry and artillery.’ The merest subaltern at the front could see what was wrong. Lieutenant Fred Dallas of the South Devonshires: ‘What kills us out here is the utter want of system and arrangement in every department.’

Was it the advanced age of the British commanders that left them so stuck in the Crimean mud? In the army there was only one divisional commander under the age of sixty and that was the 34-year-old Duke of Cambridge, who had never seen active service and had been chosen only because he was the queen’s cousin. For the navy it was a choice between the 79-year-old Lord Dundonald, who was tottering on the verge of insanity, and Sir William Parker, who himself thought he was a fraction past it at 73. Which left only Sir Charles Napier, a mere 67 but a hopeless alcoholic with a vile temper.

The commander-in-chief was the 66-year-old Lord Raglan, who had lost an arm at Waterloo but had never commanded so much as a battalion in the field. He was selected partly because he could speak French, just as his French opposite Saint-Arnaud had been chosen by Napoleon III because he had fluent English. Unfortunately, Saint-Arnaud also had terminal cancer, which was to bring his colourful life to an end shortly after the Battle of the Alma. He had worked in London as a dancing and fencing master, fled England to escape his debts, then worked as a comedian in Belgium under the name of Floridor, one of his numerous aliases, before popping up in Paris in time to assist in the coup which brought Louis Napoleon to power.

As these two accomplished linguists cruised across the Black Sea towards the Crimea, initial contact between them was hampered by the fact that Saint-Arnaud was too ill to leave his cabin and Lord Raglan with his one arm was unable to climb down the side of the ship. In any case, for all his fabled courtesy and charm, Raglan was not well suited for such a collaboration, since he invariably said ‘the French’ when he meant ‘the enemy’. He was not alone in this hangover from the Napoleonic Wars (half the full colonels had joined up in the 18th century). The otherwise tolerably rational ” Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty, thought fighting alongside the French was ‘unnatural’ and refused to allow British ships to carry French troops. The prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, had expected war with France rather than Russia. Neither he nor Gladstone had much relish for coming to the aid of the Turks against the Russians, who were ostensibly only protecting the rights of their fellow Christians in the Holy Land – the original casus belli.

Above all, the higher levels of the British army were crippled by snobbery. The system of commission by purchase allowed the sons of peers and plutocrats to skip from one rank to the next by a series of large payments. More pernicious still, having achieved the promotion, they could switch over to half-pay the next day and swan off to amuse themselves, thus avoiding the inconvenience of actual military experience. Meanwhile, the professional soldier slogged away in India with little hope of promotion beyond the rank of captain, to be sneered at on his return to England by aristocratic cavalrymen such as the Earl of Cardigan. When Cardigan bought command of the 11th Light Dragoons for around £40,000, he tried to remove any officers who had served in the benighted subcontinent as being unworthy to wear the glorious royal blue jackets edged with gold, the furred pelisses and the tight cherry-coloured pants he had designed at his own expense for his new regiment. The OED’s first citation for ‘pants’ in England is to Cardigan’s cherry-coloured ones, thus immortalising that umbrageous dandy in garments for both the upper and lower limbs.

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